In Mexican households, the role of women has traditionally involved caring for the children, controlling the family budget and preparing the food. Nowadays, however, they are expected to do more. In rural Mexico, many male heads of the household have migrated north to the United States, leaving women in charge of the family ranch.
In cities, women are increasingly participating in the labour market, and one area that is expanding as a result is sustainable agriculture in peri-urban areas. For some women, this is about taking on a wider responsibility for the environment; for others it just makes good business sense. Meet the female faces of sustainability in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.
Mery Solanzo has been an important influence in the city’s sustainable food scene. Her shop, Common Sense (Sentido Común), was one of the first to offer organic food. The cooperative she formed alongside it, provides accountancy and legal services to small producers who would otherwise not be able to sell their wares. Her husband was a founding member of one of the first ‘eco-markets’ in the city and through this they realised the business potential for opening a shop. Mery cites Fairtrade, as well as reduced environmental impact, as the drive behind the enterprise. Through the shop, Mery says she has found a strong community of peers in the markets, and the women involved help one another with childcare while they work.
“Through the markets,” she says, “we’ve formed a lovely group of families all with the same ideology.”
The eco-markets have also opened up opportunities for other women, such as Renata Ramirez who sells vegetable seeds and plugs. Her love of vegetables started 10 years ago when she decided to decorate her patio with greenery. She had never much liked ornamental plants, so pineapples, tomatoes and herbs provided the nature she wanted. Her neighbours took an interest in the unusual display and, little by little, she convinced her entire building to grow and share vegetables. She’s proud that her children grew up eating fresh fruit, and that they understand where their food comes from and how it grows.
She also encourages others to start their own vegetable patches by running free workshops on planting and growing, and by managing a popular Facebook page offering advice. Having grown up with grandmothers and aunts who cultivated herbs and vegetables, Renata feels a strong connection between women and food. But, she notes, “I’ve seen men and women involved in sustainable food projects, and I couldn’t say that gender makes any difference in how these projects are run.”
According to artist and chocolatier Luciana Helguera, “Gender roles have changed a lot (in Mexico), and men are now important actors in the home, often even preparing food.” But women are still ‘housewives’ even if they work or study. “We are historically tied to certain activities, including the weekly shop,” she explains. “If women choose to buy natural, organic, local, we can be key agents for change.” For Luciana, agricultural sovereignty is a practical answer to a society-wide crisis marked by environmental degradation, economic instability and violence. She has looked to permaculture for a more natural approach to food production and she dreams of growing her own organic vegetables. But, for now, she is focusing on making organic chocolate. Local chocolate production is growing increasingly fashionable, and she is still one of very few producers that actually uses Mexican cacao.
Blanca Arely Arellano and her husband both studied agronomy at Guadalajara Public University. In 2002 they set up a successful garden centre together, providing plants to local towns around the city. However, as the drug wars escalated around them, people no longer felt safe along the road where the garden centre was situated and their business declined. She turned instead to vegetable growing. When she became pregnant, she decided never to use another chemical on her crops again. Her husband still grows conventionally and remains unconvinced of the practicalities of scalable organic agriculture. But Blanca stands by her organic compost, despite complaints from farm workers.
Every Friday Blanca takes the two-hour coach ride to Guadalajara to sell her organic produce at specialist markets, where she is slowly building a customer base. Her project is still too small to be viable, but she sticks to her beliefs and perseveres, providing an example to her daughter and the housewives of the small rural village where she lives.
“Being a woman doesn’t help us at all, quite the opposite. We arrive home and continue to do all the domestic chores after having spent all day working just as hard as the men. I believe that this means that anything produced by women has a little more value.”
Her insight illustrates the difficulties women face in the labour market. Women growers are few and far between. Blanca does not get an organic premium for her produce and she struggles to make a profit – she feels this results from a society where both women and the environment are undervalued.
Grower Lorena Gudiño feels a duty to contribute to gender equality. She sells organic rocket to upmarket restaurants, and the business sustains her family. Lorena hopes that by sharing the process of how she set up her business, she may encourage other women to start their own projects. She invites women to visit her polytunnels and teaches them her techniques for growing.
Nutrionist, Nadia Xochiquetzalli González Briseño also feels strongly that Mexico needs more female leaders, and is outspoken about the challenges facing Mexico’s ‘macho’ society. “I’ve come across various gender related issues, above all when I was working in an organisation where the other active participants were male. Even in alternative projects there are very clear and normalised prejudices against female leaders.”
Nadia, whose interest in alternative agriculture was borne of a search to construct something productive in the face of a country plagued by violence, wants to use her agricultural skills to develop better community relations as well as encouraging a deeper engagement with the environment. She noted a lack of awareness around sustainable food issues and also of networks to support the development of alternative food systems in Guadalajara. So she created Colectivo Huautli, which works collaboratively with other community groups to organise talks, workshops, educational activities, seed swapping events, barter markets and other activities that help to raise the profile of local traditional foods.
Concern for the environment and awareness of the impacts of climate change, drive many of the women in Guadalajara’s sustainable food community to succeed. For them, there is a parallel between their position as women and the current state of the earth. “Women, like Mother Earth, have for some time been neglected, shut out, abused and exploited,” says Selene Carrillo Gonzalez, a leading figure in the local sustainable food scene. “I see it as a joint effort, a type of symbiosis where women recognise that to help heal Mother Earth they are also helping to heal women.” For her, it is only natural that women team up to fight for the environment.
Selene works to promote the local sustainability movement in Guadalajara through an online guide and an eco-tour of its shops and projects. After studying environmentalism at Knox College, Illinois, and then working with the Mexican community in Chicago on urban agriculture projects, she decided to move to her parent’s childhood home in Mexico. She cares deeply about how Mexico is going to be (and in some cases already is) disproportionately affected by climate change compared to other nations. She sees an urgent need to be prepared by knowing the facts and promoting sustainable projects.
These Guadalajaran women are choosing not only to empower themselves by starting their own projects, but also to contribute to important food and sustainability issues in their city and the surrounding area. Despite the social and economic pressures still faced by Mexican women, a growing movement can inspire others to change their food habits, and start up new projects and campaigns that support a local and sustainable food system.
Featured image by Ted McGrath